Does blood make a sound as it rushes through our veins? A person must weigh less after losing a limb, but how much? “Are we there yet?” And furthermore, how is it that these particular questions come up more than once over the course of the next 184 pages? Tod Marshall asks “why oh why” and Antonio Tabucchi answers “because because because.” And after compiling this issue I can’t help but also wonder, Why is it that birds signal something to us the world over that we are still at a loss to explain?
We don’t select work based on a theme or question, and yet patterns like this come forward, images echo uncannily back and forth, and it is tempting to call them out. It is as if, even when they don’t mean to, these writers are speaking to each other. As if there is meaning in such repetition, which serves as a kind of bulwark against chaos, or at least offers a kind of pleasure, a kind of beauty—because isn’t beauty just an arrangement of chaos into a pleasing form?
“I stood in fields north of Berlin one afternoon watching thousands of cranes migrate from Finland,” one of our authors wrote to me the other day. “The image came to me when I read ‘I’m searching for . . .’ Funny the associations we make.” (She’d been reading Ursula Hegi’s essay in our previous issue.) And just the day before that, a writer from the current issue said, “I watched a bald eagle on a branch in my back yard this morning . . . The crows kept buzzing the eagle to get him to leave, but only one hawk that harassed him got a rise. When the eagle finally took to flight, the wing span was amazing. Blake says, ‘When thou seest an eagle, thou seest a portion of genius. Lift up thine eyes!’ I think I’ve got the quotation pretty much right.”
These notes caught my attention: Neither of these writers was aware that we were about to publish a poem titled “Cranes” or an essay “To the Curator of Birds,” for which that Blake quotation could be the perfect epigraph (though he says “lift up thy head” not eyes). In that essay Philip Gura also describes the awe of seeing an eagle at close range, and quotes another poem that says “They do not know / Compassion, and if they did / We should not be worthy of it.”
A few years ago we published a story that began “You can’t put birds in a poem anymore” and a poem titled “In Certain Situations I Am Very Much Against Birdsong.” So, yes, we know: birds are quaint, Romantic, not relevant, pastoral. And yet here is the crane, “lever-like head tilting back and skewering.” Here are pelicans, “so homely, poor bastards, abandoned dinosaurs,” and the “thousand birds—they flew out of / your mouth at your dying.” Birds are everywhere. There is, after all, an Audubon Society chapter in Detroit. There are birding tours in Beijing and Mumbai. When I think of those cities I think about people and pollution, not birds—shouldn’t we be focusing on people and pollution? And yet, like the pigeons in Penn Station who hobble around on deformed feet, birds are always there to startle us and connect us across time and geography.
Questions of silence and sound have also risen to the surface in this issue. We didn’t choose Kate Lebo’s essay about hearing loss to suit Michael Fallon’s essay on silence, or J. Camp Brown’s poems on the mandolin and voice to complement Pascoli’s poem, in which “the bagpipes came down from the black hills / and did not try to speak.” But in retrospect we could have. “What if I can’t hear God because I can’t hear? What if I can’t hear because I can’t hear God?” says Lebo. Tabucchi: “How can a woman be singing up here in the woods, the dawn after a slaughter? . . . these are the voices of the angels . . . and the only ones who hear them are those that can hear them or want to hear what they long to hear.” And Lauren Camp: “I navigate to the throat of the ocean for audible / guidance.” And that’s just to name a few. Adolescence is another prevalent theme here, though just about any issue of any literary magazine could probably be called the Coming of Age Issue, or the Sex and Death Issue.
Two pieces—one a story, one our “Rediscovery”—make connections to Havelock Ellis’s groundbreaking 1896 book, Sexual Inversion, a book people don’t talk about much anymore, even as the subject of gender norms remains vital and newsworthy. And yet our “Rediscovery” (by Ellis’s co-author) speaks even more directly to Laurence de Looze, as both describe the art they stumble upon in Italy 120 years apart, neither of them seeking or finding the same thing.
Lisa Lewis’s poem takes us to “the muddy shallows,” but now I hear an echo. Where else did those muddy shallows come up? And then there is the poet who writes like a painter and the story of a painter who paints in red—both of them using only words to get at “the project behind the project, the foundational questions to which every painting . . . is the answer.”
Thoreau is recommended twice, in this issue, by well-meaning English teachers. The fictional recommendee “thought Thoreau was a huge pussy in comparison with his dad.” While the other finds in Thoreau a hero, even as his words are coopted for the posters and fliers of the era. And why is it that every issue I’ve edited so far, two years’ worth now, has at some point referenced Dostoevsky? And so round and round it goes.
These are small things, hardly the signaling of a zeitgeist. They may present nothing more than a thematic and imagistic scavenger hunt to the reader who devours the entire issue, page by page. In talking to our poetry editor about assembling an issue in order from start to finish, he said that a completed collection of a dozen poems can be like another poem in itself. The collection is the thirteenth poem. Every issue of this magazine turns out to be like that too. Admittedly, there are great leaps between, say, a memoir of Phnom Penh and a poem that begins in Bananarama, just as there are detectable patterns. But the leaps, too, are part of the character of a review, part of the joy and challenge that make it, in this case, the twenty-ninth poem.